Facing The Demons Within - The counsellor looked at me, in what looked like a mix of exasperation and pure frustration. The last hour or so had passed in his futile attempt at altering my thinking. I had given a personality test and an aptitude test to ascertain what career choices I am suited to. Paradoxically, I was doing this after I had already graduated as an engineer. My steadfast belief about a job in the government is better than one in the corporate was so deeply ingrained that every statement by the counsellor was met with a counter-argument.
April 2017: Hence, exasperation. I returned home, to my room, a place I had started hating for the sheer negativity in which I had spent the past year, wallowing in self-doubt and creating impending doom scenarios for myself. My fertile mind, which had helped me achieve academic and extra-curricular laurels, had now started using all its expertise in the opposite direction. I wondered, how had a student like me reached a point like this?
End of 2014: I was in the third year of engineering when we were first briefed about placements and the preparatory sessions that were to precede them. Summer vacation was to be sacrificed. But my plans for the summer were decided already. I was to enrol for the test series by T.I.M.E and focus on CAT preparation. But then again, missing the prep sessions meant offending the Placement Officer and that’s not something you would want to do if you wanted a good placement. I decided to attend and simultaneously prepare for the CAT.
July 2015: CAT preparation was on in full swing. My goal was to get placed early on. The first company that visited campus was a corporation offering core engineering roles. I appeared for the interviews and was put on hold, which is like being kept on a waiting list. The next company, a financial services firm, interviewed me but the HR got a whiff of my plans for further studies, and I was promptly denied a placement. The next firm on the list, a prominent sales and marketing consult, asked us to visit their Pune office for the interviews. That was my first step in an actual multinational firm. The plush offices, the swanky building, the near-perfect feel of a technological park. My friends were wowed. But somewhere deep in my mind, I felt uncomfortable. I got placed there though. Having achieved what I wanted, the next plan was to keep preparing without the burden of placements. I continued.
January 2016: CAT 2015 had been average. I think I could have definitely performed better if only I had held my nerve. The scores were declared. There had been a technical glitch and one could check one’s scores by searching within the script of the webpage, even before official results were announced. I saw 98.43 somewhere, a 99.22 somewhere and a couple of other percentiles. One of them was my overall percentile score. I wished it was 99.22. But the official declaration confirmed my fears, I had scored a 98.43. My average mock test score was 99.5x. It is what it is, or so I said to myself. Having done what I could, I focussed on the interviews that were to come. As the institutes started giving out calls, I knew I was not getting one from IIM A, B or C. Perhaps preparing your mind for dejections helps when the event actually occurs. But nothing can prevent the frustration of not getting a call from an institute you cherish and you think you deserve. That was IIM K for me. The absolutely gorgeous campus, the decent rankings and wonderful tales my seniors had to say about it, all of it had created this paradise in my mind. The bubble burst as soon as the shortlists were announced. I had failed to make the cut. The only call I had was from IIM Indore.
May 2016: I had converted IIM Indore in the first list and declined the job offer I had in hand. The convocation ceremony at college was over. It was time to leave the people I had grown close to over the last four years. My girlfriend cried when I left her at the station. She had converted an institute and was heading there the next day. Both of us knew that a long-distance relationship would be tough. Surprisingly, I never felt a lump in my throat or the urge to cry. I was sad, yes, but not overtly emotional. Perhaps, the turmoil inside me was only beginning to rise. I spent my last day in college, collecting resources I felt I would need at IIM Indore. But the curious kid I was, I started browsing online, looking for “Life at IIM” and “Life after IIM”. I found a lot of content online, which, in hindsight, I should have taken with a pinch of salt. A lot of articles invariably ended up exposing “the ugly truth behind IIM placements”. Some of them painted an exceedingly depressing picture of post-MBA life. Hectic schedules, zero work-life balance, poor work culture, crushing load and other scary phrases. Suddenly, I started thinking. In all the time I had spent studying for the test, I had never really asked myself ‘Why MBA?’ in earnestness. Of course, the interviewers did that job. But for them, I had my response ready. What about the response I had for myself? Sadly, I had none. I did not see myself working on engineering projects, although I was good at it. Nor did I want to pursue technology further. That left me with MBA or the Civil Services. Increasingly, the Civil Services started looking like a brighter prospect. The ocean of my mind was to witness its own churn. I could not sleep the night I travelled back home from college. And for a lot of nights after that.
Mid-June 2016: The decision was taking a toll on me mentally. I felt disgusted at myself. How can I not know what I wanted to do? By this time, IIM Indore had emailed preparatory material. There were a few assignments to be done. I just could not put my mind to it. It was difficult putting my thoughts across to my parents, not because they weren’t supportive, but because they would not really understand much of it. Sleep and appetite eluded me. I tried holding myself back. But eventually, I broke down. I could not hide it anymore. I had been imagining ugly scenarios of how my life would turn out if I failed to take a decision. What if the decision turns out to be wrong? What if I end up failing at everything in life? The fee at a business school is not a small amount. What if I let my parents down? I desperately needed help. That was when I consulted a psychiatrist.
July 2016: I had been on medication for a couple of weeks now. They worked magically, I felt rejuvenated. It felt awesome, to be honest. I was bubbling with confidence. Meanwhile, I had visited my native place in rural Maharashtra. Suddenly, I felt more connected to it. Dramatic thoughts of ‘doing something for the society’ started pouring in. I was confident, when I convinced my parents to withdraw my admission to IIM Indore a few days before the course was to start. My parents were happy because that’s what they wanted me to do in the first place. A cousin in the family, who was already in the services, acted the quintessential guide and mentor. I was ecstatic. The subjects I was to learn, while preparing, seemed interesting. Social Sciences had always fascinated me. Maybe, this is my destiny after all!
August 2016: After the first couple of weeks on medication, my dosage was reduced. By this time I was devouring books, reading entire NCERT textbooks in a day. I was thoroughly enjoying my preparation. In my excitement, I had decided to prepare for the exam all by myself. There were online resources at my disposal. I felt I was studying when all that I actually did was reading. Then came the notification for CAT 2016. That was the beginning of the worst phase of my depression. I realised I was not ‘studying’. I realised the mistake I had committed. The ugly thoughts started resurfacing. I spent hours crying before my mother, pouring it all out. The medication was not helping at all. It was, in fact, worsening the situation. I felt dizzy for the most part of the day. My parents wanted me to discontinue it. Discontinuing without medical advice is a foolish thing to do. But I did that. I did not want pills. I wanted clarity. I was sleepless for the next few nights. I had filled the form for CAT 2016, ‘to play it safe’. I was heading nowhere with my Civil Services Exam preparation. Amidst thoughts of renouncing the world, thinking of probable ashrams I could join (it probably sounds funny, but that did happen), I thought of the life I wanted. A government job that would pay me just enough to support myself had become my ambition. For someone who had cracked CAT, finding such government jobs was fairly simple. I gave a couple of exams for public sector banks and cracked them easily. But at the same time, I tried solving a few mock tests for CAT as well. Self-help books had now replaced the Civil Services Exam books. Popular book after popular book kept harping about the innate human ability to achieve the impossible. While one tried to convince me that ‘I could win’, the other wanted me to realise ‘the power of my subconscious mind’. Frankly, I was absolutely aimless in life. I had a good brain that was working overtime on unproductive thoughts. A potently dangerous combination.
December 2016: The night before CAT, I was sleepless. In that state of extreme anxiety, all I wanted to do was sleep. To do that, I decided to take some wild measures. I used to be a teetotaller but had started consuming alcohol just for the sake of getting some sleep. I did the same that night, got thoroughly tipsy and ventured into my parents’ room. Fortunately, my parents did not react in anger and I could sleep for a few hours. CAT 2016 was a repetition of my earlier attempt. But this time, I did not hold any regrets, for I had attempted the test with little preparation. I filled the form for XAT on the very last day of the extended deadline. XAT was a good experience and I knew I had scored well.
January 2017: Towards the end of the previous year, I had decided to consciously avoid thinking about the future. I decided, instead, to experience different things. I went on a couple of trips, exercised, learned meditation, did an Art of Living Happiness programme, completed a ten-day vipassana course, read fiction the way I used to. As results started coming in, I faced a peculiar situation. I scored 99.27 in CAT 2016, 99.795 in XAT 2017. But instead of rejoicing in a better result, I broke down again, for the simple reason that in spite of all the good scores, I still did not know what I wanted to do. Congratulatory messages from friends and relatives came in, but all I could do was put on a fake smile. Deep down, the anguish was still alive. I had no clue what I was supposed to do. And as is, with most of us, I just ‘played along’.
April 2017: All my interviews were done with. As with CAT, I was sleepless before my first interview. I had a tough time explaining what I had done over the past one year, as I went in with no work experience to show. Grappling with philosophical questions, questioning my existence on this planet, crying before my mother, visiting psychiatrists and thinking of ashrams would not have been a very good answer, I presumed. As the results started coming in, I was not surprised that I had converted XLRI in the first list. The score had been great, the GD was decent and the interviews did not hover around my gap. I had two good IIM calls, Indore and Kozhikode. While I was not much concerned with Indore, Kozhikode was something I had aspired for. I felt, maybe this is what destiny had in store for me - converting the institute which had inspired me in the first place. Alas! Reality is not a script written by Karan Johar. I can vividly recall the final statement my interviewer had for me- “You are not sure about what you want to do in life”. The result was obvious. I cried again. I was distraught, should I start preparing for the Civil Services anew or should I complete my MBA first? I knew I needed help again. But this time, I approached a counsellor rather than a psychiatrist. The counsellor understood my problems and went about explaining the delicate situation I had embroiled myself into. The problem was not in the decision, it lay in the thinking. I had created this pattern of thought, about corporate jobs being stressful and government jobs being comparatively easier. And everything I saw or experienced, was neatly painted in the same vein. Every time I heard a friend who was working, complain about his job (and most of them did), my belief was reinforced. The key point, which I missed was, that experience is shaped by beliefs. My belief was utterly negative and hence, my experiences would be no different. What followed was a lecture on Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness and Progressive Muscle Relaxation. This was along with the forceful arguments my counsellor put before me, to convince me that the private sector isn’t all that bad! Session after session, he had the same things to say.
The counsellor looked at me, in what looked like a mix of exasperation and pure frustration. The last hour or so had passed in his futile attempt at altering my thinking. I had given a personality test and an aptitude test to ascertain what career choices suit me. Paradoxically, I was doing this after I had already graduated as an engineer. My steadfast belief about a job in the government being better than one in the corporate was so deeply ingrained that every statement by the counsellor was met with a counter-argument. Hence, the exasperation. I returned home, to my room, a place I had started hating for the sheer negativity in which I had spent the past year, wallowing in self-doubt and creating impending doom scenarios for myself. My fertile mind, which had helped me achieve academic and extra-curricular laurels, had now started using all its expertise in the opposite direction. I wondered, how had a student like me reached a point like this?
Present (June 2017): Between checking the status of my train reservation for Jamshedpur and juggling with the preparatory videos, I decided to write about my experience on InsideIIM.com, primarily for two reasons. One, it was a session organised by InsideIIM that finally brought me down to reality and played a big part in my recovery and the reality was - Not everyone is as sorted as they look and flexibility is the key trait in the professional world today. Secondly, the Internet is filled with content that caters to almost every thread of thought. No longer are things as absolute as they used to be. Different people have different experiences and while all of us do know this simple truth, some, like me, subconsciously get affected by what’s written. For every positive thing written about business schools, there is always a negative one written somewhere else. The important thing then is to experience it for oneself, without getting affected by opinions. And that requires a strong mind. This was my small contribution towards future aspirants who encounter similar situations. Some might not be as fortunate as I was in terms of parental support or the economic cost of treatments and counselling, but my intention was to drive home the point that we must shape our beliefs carefully, so that the harrowing experience I went through, does not happen in the first place.
So, how did I eventually decide to take the plunge? There is no fairy-tale answer to that question, one that gets followed by preachy statements on life and living. The simple answer is practicality. I have age on my side in case, I decide to prepare for the Civil Services again. But what matters is my experience at a business school and in the corporate world. Sitting cosily on my bed, I cannot comment on how it is to work a real, demanding job. But I intend to get out there and do it, to experience it and then take a call. I have my interests of course, which would help me decide the field I might want to specialise in or the organisations I am interested in. But beyond that, it is a world of limitless opportunities out there and the only limits are those that our mind imposes on itself.
About the Author:
I consider myself as an aimless wanderer waiting for his Eureka moment. Recent experiences have instilled some spirituality, but realism still sounds like a far better philosophy to believe in. My thoughts are shaped as much by the movies I watch as by the books I read. I thoroughly believe that a life lived with fear is a life half-lived, and maybe a rigorous year at XLRI can help me handle greater fears in life!
*The Author wishes to remain Anonymous. If you have a story to share but would like to publish it anonymously, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org